Originally based on a play by Anthony Shaffer (“The Wicker Man,” “Sommersby”), “Sleuth” has the potential to come off a bit too staged, just like any other play adaptation. However, in 1972, director Joseph L. Mankiewicz (“Cleopatra,” “Guys and Dolls”) was able to make it zing as it was meant to, and it became a great success. Sadly, that’s not the case with this latest version.
The film tells the captivating story of two men at odds with each other because the younger of the two is sleeping with the other’s wife. Yet because they are Englishmen they do not physically spar; instead they battle with their wits. It’s a dark game of cat and mouse and subtle one-upmanship that leaves the audience contemplating the film long after it’s over. Even more intriguing is the concept: The entire cast consists of two actors.
In this incarnation, Jude Law (“The Holiday,” “Breaking and Entering”) plays the younger man to Michael Caine (“The Cider House Rules,” “The Quiet American”), which is fascinating in and of itself as Caine originally played the role of the younger man to Laurence Olivier (“Sleuth,” “Hamlet”) in the 1972 film version. Yet it is Law that is to thank for this modernization.
Law approached legendary playwright Harold Pinter (“The Caretaker,” “The Dumb Waiter”) to rewrite the script for modern audiences, which ordinarily would have been a brilliant idea as Pinter is known for dark and claustrophobic themes. Here, however, the modernization seems to aim mainly for shock value.
The F-word is thrown about like popcorn initially just to grab the audience’s attention, and then it’s not really used again. Even worse, the blatant implication of homosexuality that comes up later in the film brings into question the intentions of the original author’s work and gives a completely different meaning to the sparring match between these two men that is wholly unnecessary.
Yet it is the dialogue that keeps the audience’s attention. It is quick, witty and riveting, leaving the audience wondering who the real winner of this match is going to be.
Of course, the actors are really the ones who make it work. Both Caine and Law are able to bring all the subtle nuances of the dialogue to their facial expressions and quickly shift from one role to another as the script demands. Their fluidity of character from gentleman to maniac and terrified dupe to sexpot is spellbinding.
Add to this mix the direction of Kenneth Branagh (“Much Ado About Nothing,” “Hamlet”) and the audience can fully expect brilliant work. Unfortunately, Branagh gets carried away with his genius, and his plethora of artistic visuals seems too staged.
From the very first overhead shot, the audience knows that they’re going to be in for a treat, but the clever staging of off-screen actors so their reflections in mirrors or metallic chairs appear on-screen becomes a bit much. This is the true downfall of the film.